Washington, DC, April 18, 2011–Cyberattacks, politically motivated censorship, and government control over internet infrastructure are among the diverse and growing threats to internet freedom, according to Freedom on the Net 2011: A Global Assessment of Internet and Digital Media, a new study released today by Freedom House.
These encroachments on internet freedom come at a time of explosive growth in the number of internet users worldwide, which has doubled over the past five years. Governments are responding to the increased influence of the new medium by seeking to control online activity, restricting the free flow of information, and otherwise infringing on the rights of users.
“These detailed findings clearly show that internet freedom cannot be taken for granted,” said David J. Kramer, executive director of Freedom House. “Nondemocratic regimes are devoting more attention and resources to censorship and other forms of interference with online expression.”
Freedom on the Net 2011, which identifies key trends in internet freedom in 37 countries, follows a pilot edition that was released in 2009. Freedom on the Net evaluates each country based on barriers to access, limitations on content, and violations of users’ rights.
The study found that Estonia had the greatest degree of internet freedom among the countries examined, while the United States ranked second. Iran received the lowest score in the analysis. Eleven other countries received a ranking of Not Free, including Belarus, Burma, China, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, and Thailand. A total of 9 of the 15 countries in the original pilot study registered declines over the past two years. Conditions in at least half of the newly added countries similarly indicated a negative trajectory. Crackdowns on bloggers, increased censorship, and targeted cyberattacks often coincided with broader political turmoil, including controversial elections.
Countries at Risk: As part of its analysis, Freedom House identified a number of important countries that are seen as particularly vulnerable to deterioration in the coming 12 months: Jordan, Russia, Thailand, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe.
* Explosion in social-media use met with censorship: In response to the growing popularity of internet-based applications like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, many governments have started targeting the new platforms as part of their censorship strategies. In 12 of the 37 countries examined, the authorities consistently or temporarily imposed total bans on these services or their equivalents.
* Bloggers and ordinary users face arrest: Bloggers, online journalists, and human rights activists, as well as ordinary people, increasingly face arrest and imprisonment for their online writings. In 23 of the 37 countries, including several democratic states, at least one blogger or internet user was detained because of online communications.
* Cyberattacks against regime critics intensifying: Governments and their sympathizers are increasingly using technical attacks to disrupt activists’ online networks, eavesdrop on their communications, and cripple their websites. Such attacks were reported in at least 12 of the 37 countries covered.
* Politically motivated censorship and content manipulation growing: A total of 15 of the 37 countries examined were found to engage in substantial online blocking of politically relevant content. In these countries, website blocks are not sporadic, but rather the result of an apparent national policy to restrict users’ access to information, including the websites of independent news outlets and human rights groups.
* Governments exploit centralized internet infrastructure to limit access: Centralized government control over a country’s connection to international internet traffic poses a significant threat to free online expression, particularly at times of political turmoil. In 12 of the 37 countries examined, the authorities used their control over infrastructure to limit widespread access to politically and socially controversial content, and in extreme cases, cut off access to the internet entirely.
“The ability to communicate political views, organize, debate, and have access to critical information is as important online as it is in the offline world,” said Sanja Kelly, managing editor of the report. “A more urgent response is needed to protect bloggers and other internet users from the sorts of restrictions that repressive governments have already imposed on traditional media,” Kelly added.
Other Important Country Findings:
* China: The Chinese government boasts the world’s most sophisticated system of internet controls, and its approach has become even more restrictive in recent years. Blocks on Facebook and Twitter have become permanent, while domestic alternatives to these applications have risen in popularity despite being forced to censor their users. The authorities imposed a months-long shutdown of internet access in the western region of Xinjiang during the report’s coverage period, and at least 70 people were in jail for internet-related reasons as of 2010.
* Iran: Since the protests that followed the flawed presidential election of June 12, 2009, the Iranian authorities have waged a fierce campaign against internet freedom, including deliberately slowing internet speeds at critical times and using hacking to disable opposition websites. An increasing number of bloggers have been threatened, arrested, tortured, or kept in solitary confinement, and at least one died in prison.
* Pakistan: In recent years—under both military rule and an ostensibly democratic civilian government—the authorities have adopted various measures to exert some control over the internet and the sharing of information online. In mid-2010, a new Inter-Ministerial Committee for the Evaluation of Websites was established to identify sites for blocking based on vaguely defined offenses against the state or religion.
* United States: Access to the internet in the United States remains open and free compared with the rest of the world. Users face very few restrictions on their ability to access and publish content online, and courts have consistently held that prohibitions against government regulation of speech apply to material published on the internet. However, the United States lags behind many major industrialized countries in terms of broadband penetration and connection speeds, and the government’s surveillance powers are cause for some concern.
The full report can be viewed here.
The overview essay and selected graphs can be viewed here.
Freedom House would like to acknowledge the United Nations Democracy Fund (UNDEF) and Google for their generous support. Freedom House is an independent watchdog organization that supports democratic change, monitors the status of freedom around the world, and advocates for democracy and human rights. Join us on Facebook and Twitter and stay up to date with Freedom House’s latest news and events by signing up for our RSS feeds.
NOTE: You can download the Nigeria report here.